Thursday, April 8, 2010



I thought if I waited long enough, procrastinated long enough, this would go away and I would not have to write this post. Not that the crisis would go away, just the headlines about the church/sexual abuse scandal. My comments would be moot. Then yesterday, front page, New York Times: Vatican Priest Likens Criticism Over Abuse to Anti-Semitism. That pushed me over the edge. Perpetrators as victims, that sounded oh, too familiar.

As a long time psychotherapist, the church scandal that broke several years ago, came as no surprise, not to me, not to many of my colleagues. We had been hearing about severe sexual , physical and emotional abuse of children by priests and even nuns for many, many years. It was validating and freeing for our patients to have this out of the closet and to know that it was institutional.

I have treated many victims of sexual violence, some at the hands of priests. I have treated a priest who was a sexual offender. They have been my teachers.

I have one thing to add to the conversation on the church, the systemic denial and cover up of the scandal and the recent revelations of how high in the hierarchy these matters reach.

Commentators looking to understand what is institutional and systemic have pointed to two factors: celibacy and more offensively, homosexuality. The have also pointed to the probable homosexuality of a substantial number of offenders. This analysis fails to explain why children are the objects of sexual desire, rather than adults, and why the church has failed so miserably to protect children from pedophilic behavior, once the pedophile has been identified. Why is the expression of compassion and protection for child victims of rape so much more tepid than the protection afforded perpetrators? Why does the church view itself as victim, rather than perpetrator?

I believe much about these matters can be explained better by reference to power relationships. In a word its about patriarchy. Power that is “infallible,” where the rule of obedience supersedes all other (moral!) considerations there is bound to be corruption and victimization of those weak and without voice.

Several years before the church abuse crisis, feminist scholars were observing that patriarchal, hierarchal institutions were much more likely to tolerate and produce violence against women and children than less rigidly hierarchal organizations where power and authority is more egalitarian in expression. This applies to family, cultural, and religious organizations.

Judith Lewis Herman, a psychiatrist and scholar in the area of sexual abuse and the effects of sexual abuse on children betrayed by trusted authority figures, writes eloquently about “the rule of the father” in an incestuous family. Herman argues persuasively and with scientifically supported data, that where father’s rule and mother’s nurture , where father’s power is paramount and mother’s power minimal, children are more at risk for the father breaking the incest taboo with his daughter. Children are undoubtedly more at risk for all kinds of violence from the father, where mother’s power is absent.

I believe the stunning insensitivity of the church, the absence of compassion for victims, the decades of denial and cover-up, the arrogation of canon law above civil law and ordinary morality, all make more sense in the context of an understanding of the perils of institutional patriarchy.

If the patriarchal nature of the church could be addressed we might see some real change in victimization within the Catholic church.


  1. I totally agree with you. The church needs a fundamental change where nuns can have as much power as priests.

  2. A beautifully written and fitting analysis of the new information coming out recently about abuse in the church. I completely agree. It is beyond my comprehension how these perps get passed from one parish to another, while the higher ups stand by and watch--are they the silent mothers in this scenario?

  3. I'm trying to pick my jaw up from the ground. Antisemitism is hate for every jewish person for no known,specific reason. People are angry and astounded at the lack of accountability for a religion that touts strict conduct for their followers but not for their priests. So what's similar in that?? Nothing. There's no prejudice there. It's a case by case basis of horrifying conduct followed up with leaders of the church acting even more shockingly! No one hates all the catholics or even all the priests. Their leaders have proven to be hypocrits, that's all.

  4. I agree, although I don't know that shared power with nuns would completely solve the problem of attracting a certain type of person to these types of all-powerful positions. There are certainly stories of physically and emotionally abusive nuns, as well, although not to the extreme as we have see from priests, certainly.